Sonoma State leads national project to help students discover ecosystems virtually

June 23, 2020
Virtual Field Sonoma State

By Nate Galvan |

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing universities across the country to go digital, including at Sonoma State where academic and student support operations will be primarily virtual in the fall. Learning experiences held routinely outside of the classroom, however, may be most affected, such as those in field sciences held at SSU’s preserves, where students from all disciplines learn to observe and study the natural world.  

Claudia Luke, director of the Center for Environmental Inquiry at SSU, is the lead on the new “Virtual Field Project” which is creating digital experiences at field sites around the U.S. and beyond to teach students observation and research skills during the COVID-19 pandemic. Supported by a National Science Foundation (NFS) RAPID-grant, a team of 50 field sites in 26 states and six countries will be a part of the project this summer.

“When the pandemic hit and virtual learning became mandatory, I started thinking, wait a minute, if we go digital that means we can go anywhere,” said Luke. “I wanted to find out if there were a few other university field sites who wanted to work together to create virtual field experiences for students. When I was flooded with enthusiastic responses from field sites all over the worldI knew we would need some help. We called the NSF to find out if they could fund us to work together, and the rest is history.”

The “Virtual Field Project” is creating ecosystem exploration videos, hosting live-streaming cross-site events with researchers and sharing existing virtual materials and events with faculty and their students at universities across the U.S. The focus is on teaching skills, said Luke. For example, the ecosystem exploration videos will take a "scavenger hunt" approach in which students look for evidence of broader ecological or evolutionary concepts in habitats across the planet.

“We won't be able to replace first-hand experiences at field stations where students can study the vast complexity of the natural world,” said Luke, who’s been at SSU since 2009. “However, we will try our best to create virtual experiences that allow students to practice some of the skills that they would have learned in the field.”

According to a National Academy of Science report, more than 900 field stations, or sites, are scattered around the world. The report added that these stations “provide environments to observe nature where access is relatively controlled and experimental set-ups are relatively protected from tampering.” Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, almost all of these sites have closed, sparking a need for virtual experiences that spans the globe. 

Another positive outcome from the project is that it will continue far beyond the pandemic, said Luke. Multi-site field courses are out-of-reach for many faculty and undergraduates due to logistics, cost and administrative barriers. Field trips created and shared by the Virtual Field Project will give students experience with a diversity of ecosystems around the world, encourage participation by a broader diversity of university courses and expand opportunities for students with disabilities. 

Alongside Luke, the project also is led by Hilary Swain at the Archbold Biological Station in Florida, and Kari O’Connell of the STEM Research Center at Oregon State University. This was a grassroots made possible through the Organization of Biological Field Stations, Luke said.

For more information about the project, and to get involved, contact Claudia Luke at Don’t forget to visit the Center for Environmental Inquiry to learn about their upcoming list of virtual events for the fall.

Media Contact

Nathanael Galvan